17 June 2011

Percy Paper and Slides for Christian Scholars' Conference Presentation

For the benefit of people in the audience and for simple access for anyone else who's interested, I'm posting my paper and slides for tomorrow's talk. I hope you find these helpful and/or interesting.

"No end to the mystery": Scientist-as-prince, scientist-as-scientist, and what one has to do with the other in Lost in the Cosmos

Paper (PDF)
Slides (PDF, PPT)

Live Blogging Ted Peters Address at Christian Scholars’ Conference

[Cross-posted at Into All The WWWorld]

The final plenary session speaker at the Christian Scholars’ Conference is Ted Peters. Peters is a systematic theology professor at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s task force on genetics, and author of Sacred Cells?: Why Christians Should Support Stem Cell Research.


Francis Collins is asking a question: In vitro fertilization is OK by more traditions, and we’ve got lots of in vitro embryos sitting around. What do you think about us using them, even if you’re a staunch embryo protection person but want to use the embryos we already have, since they’re already been created? For that matter, and on the other hand, how are embryo protection people being consistent when they say in vitro fertilization is OK?

Peters: Some Catholics do in fact say we should oppose use of in vitro embryos because, in so doing, you participate in the original sin (of creating the embyos artificially?). “I want to say ‘Get a life!’” (?!) He then went on to say that, yes, Francis, that’s a great idea, potentially very ethically helpful, and I think that’s what’s already happening in some places.


Takeaways from Peters:

  1. Respect competing commitments as conscientious (this is a critique of the Vatican calling stem cell researchers “baby killers”)
  2. Understand with empathy the coherent logic of each framework.
  3. Be guided by “faith active in love.” (Gal 5:6)
  4. Take a stand with courage, but without malice toward opponents.


Singapore has a helpful policy: only use young embryos (<14 days), use surplus embryos when possible, or get special permission on a case by case basis. Apparently no one has gone for the last option. He’s making the point that the religious discussion has affected the secular policy.


He’s giving the theological foundations of this framework of beneficence by talking about eschatology and Jesus as healer. Quick survey of stem cell research beliefs in other traditions (he’s flying now–apparently he’s almost out of time): Jews and Muslims are for stem cell research, by and large. How about Christians? He’s going really fast, and his slides only give the groups not their positions. RCs against, Orthodox against, Anglicans and Episcopalians generally for (“to the extent that I can get them [to give me a position]“), … OK, I give up, he’s just going too fast. Presumably he’s written this down somewhere.


A third framework (I’m not sure I’m exactly tracking with his outline): nonmaleficence and beneficence. He’s explaining these with respect to the Good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite did no harm (nonmaleficence), but the Samaritan did good (beneficence).


I’m continuing to be unimpressed with Peters’ explanations of stem cell science. I’m not following his discussion of chimeras. He gave an example about DNA testing from sperm samples. Totally didn’t follow.


Peters’ point: this anti-Brave New World argument looks like the Vatican argument, but it’s not, it’s a secular philosophical argument.


Leon Kass from U. of Chicago (“That means you know he’s smart”) says we’ve got a slippery slope here, from “Yuck!” to “Oh?” to “Gee Whiz” to “Why not?” This is the anti-playing-God framework, but it came not out of a Christian context but, I guess, a sort of pagan context (appeals to Prometheus, etc.). Brave New World dehumanizes us, Kass says. “What does human mean for Kass? What it really means is family life. Families should have mommies and daddies and children … [and] death is a part of life.”


Those scientists are causing us to “fall into sin,” according to a Der Spiegel article after Dolly. Note the theological language in a secular context.


OK, back to Dr. Polkinghorne’s heart attack: “Suppose we take on of his skin cells … and activate that … and produce a stem cell line with his genome.” Can we do DNA nuclear reprogramming? Scientific researchers generally appreciate the possibility (they find it “appealing”) of making stem cells without destroying an embryo. Apparently it turns out you could form a baby from these cells, which Peters hopes the Vatican doesn’t realize and reverse their position that adult stem cell research is morally permissible.


Another thought is the 14-day position: When you get to the adherence of the uterine wall, that’s when for the first time you’ve got individuation. This happens at roughly 14 days in. This looks like a good candidate for a moral threshold if you’re willing to take your clues from nature. Conservative Catholics who oppose abortion but support stem cell research hold this view.


He’s now taking a shot at John Breck, an Orthodox theologian who makes a claim that the Orthodox Church has “always taught that human life begins at conception.”


The Vatican has done the most thorough job of thinking through the issues of embryo protection, he says. He’s going to walk us through JP2 and Benedict’s thinking: Egg from mother gets penetrated by father’s sperm, creating a unique genome not shared with anyone else. God then imparts a brand-new soul to this fertilized egg, they say. The genome is “crying out for the addition of a spiritual soul”–this was JP2′s theological anthropology. The soul is what gives us dignity, the imago dei, etc. And you cannot violate the dignity of this ensouled person. But notice that this theology was formulated before the abortion controversy, with nothing to do stem cell research. It was applied to the stem cell controversy, but note the differences, including that we’re not talking about a mother’s body in stem cells.


Peters thinks non-compatible shots were being shot across the related parties at each other. He’s giving three bioethical frameworks produced by the ethics board:

  1. Embryo protection
  2. Nature protection
  3. Medical benefits
  4. Professional standards


Peters wants us to pause and ask if Newsweek got the issue right: stem cells research vs. (pro-life people?–he switched the slide).


The ethics committee at Geron had been in place two years before human embryonic stem cells were isolated. Peters was on it. “You may not like what we do, but you can’t deny that we were there.”


He’s showing a Michael West slide now explaining why West is interested in human cloning: “From deep within my soul, I erupted in an explosion of anger; ‘This won’t happen!’ I shouted out loud at the thought of death. This was the most profound experience of my life. I realized it was simply not in my nature to accept death or be defeated by it.”

“Most scientists don’t talk that way,” Peters notes. But he’s “part of mix” when it comes to stem cell cloning.


Scientifically, he’s pointing out, the Dolly controversy was misunderstood. Willmot (sp?) didn’t want to create duplicate animals. Seriously, he’s going really fast, I think not taking the time to explain the science as carefully as the other speakers have (though maybe I’m just experiencing it this way because this is the area I know the least about).


Oh dear: Peters is proposing a thought experiment where Professor Polkinghorne has a heart attack. Could he be treated by foreign stem cells? Of course not.


Scientific preliminaries: We get human embryonic stem cells from a fertilized egg in a petri dish providing totipotent cells with a full complement of the genome. You could make a baby or any kind of tissue out of these cells. Days later we have the blastocyst surrounding … he’s going too fast: here’s a similar diagram from Wikimedia Commons.


These science are promising, he notes, the possibility of a new picture of human well-being and flourishing.


Peters points out that the goal of stem cell research is regenerative medicine, which will apply to a long list of problems plaguing the human body (spinal cord injury, MS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, etc.).


He’s now showing cartoons showing two disparate viewpoints: one with science running off with the ethicists following from far behind, and the other espousing the opposite view (scientist: “I’m having a hard time getting any work done with all these ethicists hanging around”).


Peters is summarizing Knud Løgstrup and Emmanuel Levinas, both students of Heidegger. I’m getting started slow, so I missed his exact point, but he wants us to keep in mind the difficulty in supposing that science can be an interpretation-less enterprise. I’ll try to keep up better as we go along.


Peters is giving a history of the founding of UC-Berkeley, which was apparently originally named (the town named for the school that would be founded there?) for Bishop Berkeley (another Anglican) who said that science and religion would be harmonious in this great new land (ouch, not yet, huh?).

Live Blogging Simran Sethi Address at Christian Scholars’ Conference

[Cross-posted at Into All The WWWorld]

This morning’s plenary speaker at the Christian Scholars Conference is Simran Sethi, a prominent environmental journalist who got her start at MTV News. I know much less about Sethi than the other speakers here, practically nothing in fact. But she’s got an impressive CV and should be an engaging speaker. The topic of her presentation is “Our Daily Bread: Food, Faith, and Conservation.”


We’re now discussing taking up a collection for the people of Joplin, especially students and faculty at Ozark Christian College.


She’s giving the genuinely touching personal wrap-up now, admitting that this has been a challenging presentation for her. She’s quoting biblical sources and yesterday’s “Augustine” quote from Collins about unity, charity, etc. (someone told me yesterday that it can’t be traced to Augustine). The plea is for us to look at the issues of climate change and creation care, to think critically about our food system, and to ask ourselves if this is the best answer. Cool McKibben quote to the effect of “There is no silver bullet, only silver buck shot.” When I was getting a “precautionary principle” link, I missed a cool thing about Kant and examining the intentions of Monsanto, etc., which was I think the boldest part of the presentation.


“Hungry people in the developing nations have no right to choose,” is our logic, she’s pointing out. They should, I’m extrapolating here, be desperate enough to eat whatever we have to offer, even if it’s dangerous. And it is, very likely: she’s now citing a first-of-kind study about “[m]aternal and fetal exposure to pesticides associated to genetically modified foods” in Quebec. These toxins are in the animals, in the meat, and int he blood of humans, including “humans who aren’t even here yet.” So back to the precautionary principle (this is a technical term you may not be aware of if you haven’t followed the technology, science, and policy wars, see here).


Grant says solution to hunger problems are to double or triple yields. Pollan asks “yields of what?” Sethi thinks the best way to tackle these problems is to let farmers save their seeds. (I missed connection between these two ideas, sorry.)


What’s are the implications of GMOs and “terminator seeds” (GURTs) which don’t reproduce (Farmers will have to buy them every year)? Monsanto is talking up the ownership themes, which Sethi finds theologically problematic. Huh, the environmental discourse around this is known as “seed sovereignty.” Love it. Also, Monsanto’s CEO’s name is Hugh Grant.


The point of contact between man and nature is spiritual. She’s riffing on Matthew 31-33 metaphors. “Christ doesn’t say ‘the kingdom of heaven is like a chariot race’ … The kingdom of heaven is like a grape vine.” Food patents work directly against this spirit.


Public policy should follow the precautionary principle, she and other advocates maintain. But this hasn’t gone well. Monsanto has grown in proportion to GMO adoption. They control the seeds. It’s not germane to her argument that Monsanto created Agent Orange, she notes. She doesn’t want to give the impression that multi-national corporations are bad. That’s why she has a grad degree in business. She would want to celebrate Monsanto if they were doing good things, because “Man, they’re big. When they do something, the world changes.” But that’s not the case. They present themselves as feeding the world, but most of the crops they create are commodity crops generating bioplastics and biofuels. But “whoever controls the seed controls the food system.”


Up to 70% of packaged goods in the U.S. contain GMOs, mostly in corn and soy, which are a huge part of our diet, Pollan points out. Hehe, the only person in the room who raised his hand when she asked if this was surprising “is also wearing a DNA tie.”


GMed cotton sounded like it would be a good idea, since 25% of insecticides were being used on cotton. But, constant exposure to the toxin in this cotton has created an evolutionary pressure for insects to adapt resistance. “The engineered crop is no longer resistant to the pest it was designed to kill.”


GMOs and non-GMOs can cross-pollinate (“that’s what nature does; it tries to be fruitful”). But this drift (out-crossing) actually turns out to be detrimental. This doesn’t just contaminate local organic farms. It has also led to Monsanto, et al., to sue small farmers whose crops have been so contaminated. There’s a patenting of life forms going on.


She’s talking about Pluots, plumb-apricots that she would call “part of God’s plan” that any horticulturalist could do. Using recombinant DNA technology is of a different quality, and this couldn’t happen naturally. She describes this strategy of “man’s plan.”


“To understand the world as God’s creation is to understand … our accountability to God as tenants.” We can’t destroy what has been so richly provided to us. Our works should be “in harmony with the laws that produced them.”


She’s now moving onto GMOs (genetically modified organisms). She’s prefacing it with an admission that she longs for a silver bullet even though there isn’t one. But she’s saying that GMOs are, at the very least, not that silver bullet. Investors and many others have come to that conclusion, but she humbly disagrees, citing (in part) conflict of interest among the big seed makers. Do these practices honor life and stewardship, she asks? Simple asnwer: these GMOs feed people. But her point is that it’s not that simple.


The highest rates of obesity correlate quite compellingly with the highest rates of food insecurity. Telling a compelling story about the urban food desert in Sugar Hill, Harlem.


Insecticide endosulfan is a chemical cousin of DDT and was only recently banned. It’s an endocrine disruptor with risk of accumulation. 1.4 million pounds were used in the U.S. EPA is missing the point in saying small amounts are OK: what about the people handling it? What about people drinking nearby water? Why all the fuss, including the push to exempt Global South farmers who couldn’t afford substitutes? It was a multi-million-dollar industry, of course (I missed the exact number).


Agricultural chemicals can cross the placental barrier, studies say, so farm workers and city dwellers alike are doing great harm to, at the very least, their children.


“Monocultures deplete the soil of important nutrients: diversity creates harmony.” She’s very theological/philosophical, notice. Lovely speech and lovely visuals. Just as we could tell yesterday that Collins is a scientist (and now bureaucrat), we can definitely tell Sethi is a journalist.


Hehe, quoting “Good Crop, Bad Crop.” Its analysis of Green Revolution: farms had to adapt to seed variety rather than the other way around.


“Our food is oily,” both in terms of food shipping and petro-chemicals, as she noted before. Plus we’re “growing” plastics and fuel (ethanol, etc.). Many farmers feel like they can’t afford to grown anything but corn. Price volatility makes us incredibly vulnerable (and more so people who depend on us) with our one-crop economy. Historical and contemporary parallels: Irish potato famine, “rice crisis” in Southeast Asia. We’re pushing out crops that came about by “the methods of diversity” for a “one-size fits all” solution controlled by seed companies, etc., who want to maximize yield, not nutritional value (for the most part).


Food inflation hurts the least among us, she’s noting “the worst form of taxation on the poorest of the poor” (she’s quoting someone).


Food First Institute realized years ago that world farmers were producing four pounds of food per person per day. The fact that we won’t have enough of it is a much more recent occurrence. She’s noting that her home country of India has great poverty along with the most Forbes-list billionaires of any country in the world (think I have that right).


It’s going to be a luxury to have food at all “and as people of any faith … we should find this unacceptable.” Anglican Bishop Jeff Davies argues that overpopulation and overconsumption are our two greatest sources of environmental harm. [Lots of Anglicans are popping up at this conference, this one is happy to note.]


Talking about European e coli. Pointing out the petro-chemical inputs and transportation costs of our food practices and whether our answers about the global food market are misleading and detrimental. Food prices could double in next ten years, analysts say.


She just read a lovely excerpt from David Mas Masumoto about peaches and the coming of summer. Modern farming puts us out of touch with this spirit, and it’s causing us to be filled with a spiritual longing.


Sethi has an M.B.A but nevertheless has strong critiques for Big Agribusiness. Farm subsidies mostly help diversify these large corporations.


“How many of you come from agricultural states?” We have a luxury in that we can know a bit more about where our food comes from. Although we’ve lost 300,000 small farms in this country (?!).


“Eating is an agricultural act,” says Wendell Berry. “I just started growing my own food this year,” and it’s a humbling experience.


“Everyday meals carry with them sacramental power.” We know that food is a part of spirituality, a reflection of “what we hold sacred.” “We know that God dwells in the host, but can we bring [Christ] into the Big Mac?”


Need a food ethic that believes that the earth itself is sacred (“or very good”).


She’s having trouble with the slides “I’m ‘Girls Gone Wild’ with the clicker here.” [Laughs.]


She’s not a Christian but a believer (Hindu): “The food and the eater of the food are both forms of divinity.” Talking about Prince Siddhartha’s food experiences and discovery of the middle path between self-mortification and (missed the other exact term).


“We all eat,” she says. And “our food system is in great disrepair.” And–this is intriguing–she thinks faith-based efforts will be what helps bring about a solution to the food system problem.


Sethi says she’s a “an unlikely fit,” neither Christian nor scholar, used to seeing a lot more hippies in the audience.


The Provost of ACU (I think) is giving the introduction: Sethi is a “Top Ten Eco-Hero of the Planet” according to The Independent. She blogs on environmental matters, including on her efforts to “green her own home.” Sethi is “impatient” in her advocacy, saying we need to get way past new light bulbs and reusable bags.

16 June 2011

Live Blogging Francis Collins Address at Christian Scholars' Conference

[Cross-posted at Into All The WWWorld]

I really dug the live blogging thing this morning and am going to keep it going for this afternoon’s Francis Collins address. You probably know that Francis Collins was the director of the Human Genome Project and is now the director of NIH. He is also an Evangelical Christian and the founder of the BioLogos Foundation, about which there have been several sessions today here at the Christian Scholars Conference. Same two notes as with the Polkinhorne lecture: (1) Read from the bottom, obviously. (2) Forgive my EDT time stamp; the talk began at 4 p.m. PDT.


Just got a much more interesting question about continuing human evolution, and whether we should be a part of it. He gave a cool answer about recent human mutations (why pre-historical white people didn’t get rickets). As for whether we should be a part of it (genetic engineering), he had both scientific (what if we screw up the germ line?) and theological (playing God, etc.) answers.


Wow, someone just got up and asked a really hostile question about macro-evolution. Collins is giving a kind, careful answer about why we ought to expect the gaps in the fossil record. Now he’s moving on to the point about the genomics evidence, which the questioner obviously either doesn’t get or is choosing to ignore. This is a very classy answer, classier than my characterization of the questioner (who also said that lead would be gold but for “one electron”–a comment that evoked a meaningful look from a molecular biologist I met earlier today).


Final slide was Augustine: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” A nice note to end on given how this topic is usually treated.


Another interesting question: Even if you accept Nowak’s evolutionary altruism, “the fullest and noblest expression of altruism are a scandal to evolution.” Even if we can explain truly radical altruism in evolutionary terms, this won’t bother Collins, who thinks it’s conceivable that God brought it about via evolution like everything else. A final point: if the Moral Law is purely a consequence of purely blind evolution, then there is no absolute God and evil (this is the “Can we be good without God?” question).


He’s talking now about Adam and Eve with respect to Denis Alexander’s book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have To Choose?


  • A literal Adam and Eve as sole founders of the race
  • An historical couple of Neolithic farmers chosen by God
  • An historical event where God intervened and created the species Homo divinus from Homo sapiens (suddenly? gradually?)
  • Everyman [which Collins is not at all comfortable with because it's hard to square with the rest of Scripture. This is the second time today (both of them Collins talks) where I've been made very aware that, as a mainliner rather than an evangelical, I'm in many ways an outsider at this conference.]


OK, now he’s back to fast-and-loose apologetics, dismissing giant arguments with single PowerPoint bullets. “Isn’t evolution a purely random process? Doesn’t that take God out of it?” is a considered objection that oughtn’t be dealt with in ~10 seconds. A careful reading of what Dawkins is rightly saying requires this, in my opinion.


He’s telling the story of founding BioLogos (bios = life, Logos = Word = Jesus), a foundation that creates a meeting place of people interested in these questions. In my opinion, his proposal that BioLogos replace “theistic evolution” is flawed. He explains why he did it (to appeal to evangelicals who don’t like the “theism” playing second fiddle to “evolution”), but I think it’s an inappropriate term because it’s replacing theistic evolution, not Christic evolution. We’re excluding the other theistic religions in our choice of a term that need not exclude them.


He’s doing a cosmic history now. First, God was an awesome mathematician, fine-tuning the universe to give rise to complexity. Here’s the crux of his argument: “After God’s plan for evolution, in the fullness of time, had prepared a … [sufficiently large brain]” [he changed the slide] we were endowed with rationality (created in God’s image) and eventually fell…


[Sorry, just lost my connection for a few minutes.] Now he’s doing the Adam and Eve question. We’re from a pool of about 10,000 ancestors (definitely not just one or two), and we definitely have a common ancestor with Neanderthal (then a bottleneck of one or two would be very strange).


He’s showing the computer-generated, genomics-based “tree of life” that coheres so well with Darwin’s own drawing (one of the neatest parts of his book), though he admits this won’t meet the creationist “special creation” argument.


[After the clip:] “If you think that was rehearsed, you’re wrong. All he said was, ‘You’re Collins? I’m gonna get you.’”


Collins is doing great, way funnier than most Colbert guests. Just the right level of pushing back and playing along.


“Evolution is your friend,” he said to Colbert. “Evolution is God’s plan for giving upgrades.” Opposable thumb? Upgrade! Bigger brain? Upgrade! Love it.


He’s showing a hilarious Bizarro cartoon about Goldfish Crackers. Another good laugh from the audience. Now we’re seeing “one of the scariest moments of his life”: when he was on The Colbert Report: “Sorry, God doesn’t speak DNA, he speaks English.” This clip is pretty funny.

  • Collins: How do you think we got the ability to do science?
  • Colbert: Uh, because we misused God’s gifts?


NIH is “Steward of Medical and Behavioral Research for the Nation,” according to slide. He’s talking with some laughs about a Sam Harris editorial that opposed his appointment: “Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?” He took this as an opportunity to point out the differences between science and scientism. He’s noting that this has not generally been his experience in this position. He says he’s treated very well by scientists, though some think he has a “weird streak.”


Talking about “The Cancer Genome Atlas,” looking at genomic changes in major types of cancers. Definitely feeling like I’m at a scientific conference. He’s got lots of touching anecdotes about individuals he’s worked with. New targeted gene therapies are “not carpet bombing but smart bombing.” “Beverly’s doing great,” though not everyone does (their genetic misspellings are different).


Interestingly, the cost of sequencing base pairs followed Moore’s Law for quite a while but is now getting cheaper faster. Within three years, it’s going to cost about ,000 to sequence an individual’s entire genome. “Not a bad cost curve” from 0 million (I think he said). While I’ve written this, he’s been talking about therapies for rare diseases with genetic risk factors. His job is to push such insights into “new diagnostics and new therapeutics as fast as we can.”


Talking about all the different genome projects that they did after the human. Showed a great picture of the Nature cover with the dog genome article. It’s a picture of dogs looking up at the famous picture of Crick and Watson pointing at their double helix model.


The big question, he says: “Isn’t evolution incompatible with faith?” He never had the knee-jerk Christian response to the world evolution because of not being brought up in a conservative Christian household.


Slide describing what he missed when he was “falling in love with second-order differential equations”:

Nature provides some interesting pointers to God

  • There is something instead of nothing
  • “The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” [that's Wigner]
  • The Big Bang [need an Augustinian creator "outside of time," notice]
  • The precise tuning of physical constants in the universe
  • The Moral Law [he always capitalizes it]

He just said Dawkins admits that “that fine-tuning thing” is the argument from believers that bothers him the most (though “none of them bothers him very much”).

[By the way, this presentation is basically a chapter-by-chapter summary of Collins's book.]


Just got a chuckle that his anthology of writings on faith and belief covers writers “from Plato to Polkinghorne.” Giving his testimony: Jesus is the bridge to a God who is “good and holy” though he, Collins, was not. Another common Collins theme: “book of nature” to complement the book of faith.


As in his book, Collins is giving a very narrative presentation, talking about his move from atheism to Christian faith via his experiences in medical school. He was impressed by the power of the “psychological crutch” belief seemed to be for his calm, but very sick, patients.


He just gave an explanation of why the “all your mind” thing creeped into Matthew 22:36-37 when compared to Deuteronomy. I think he’s wrong. It’s not for emphasis, it’s because in Hebrew you think with your heart.


“Adam and Eve with no clothes on is a lot better than DNA,” he says, commenting on a Time Magazine cover. Anyway, “For me, this [genome science + religion] is a coherent whole,” he says.


Topic: “Reflections on the Current Tensions between Science and Faith.” Collins is very tall. One of Collins’ themes both earlier today and now is the worshipful nature of science as practiced by Christians. Apparently as a presidential appointee, Collins was very difficult to get here. They’re apparently not allowed to do all sorts of public speaking that may appear to be representing the government.


NIH budget is billion. I’m actually surprised it’s not larger. Introducer is now telling a personal story about Collins’s “bedside manner” when getting badgered by eager (and disturbed) students after a lecture Collins gave at the C.S. Lewis Society (Foundation?). “Dr. Collins is a consummate bridge-builder, healer and friend.” [Applause.]


Hehe, Collins at Yale (?) was “relentless gene hunter.” Stirring reminder that the genome is 3 billion letters long. Talking about Collins’s careful consideration of ethical and legal issues around genetics. Hehe, I believe he just said within like two sentences that Language of God was published in 1910 and was on bestseller list for 20 years.


Introducer is talking about the Human Genome Project, his coming to love molecular biology, and then his decision to go to medical school.

Live Blogging John Polkinhorne Address at Christian Scholars' Conference

[Cross-posted at Into All The WWWorld]

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I’m going to live blog the John Polkinghorne address at the Christian Scholars Conference. Two notes: (1) Read from the bottom, obviously. (2) Forgive my EDT time stamp; the talk began at 11 a.m. PDT.


Now an organizer is reminding me that I won’t be able to go to Polkinghorne’s second Saturday session because it overlaps with mine. Grrr…


Question: You gave an argument for the resurrection of Jesus Christ at a lecture you gave at a public university. I said to the atheist who organized your talk “That’s the first time I’ve heard the gospel preached in this place.” So I have a testimony, not a question.

Answer: Well thank you. It’s been great fun being here.


Question: My wife is a biologist, and one of her favorite quotes is attributed to ? (I have heard this quote recently): “I’m afraid that when we ascend to the top of the mountain, we’ll find the theologians already there.” Do you think spending lives denying the importance of theology is part of what’s going on in their meanness toward it?

Answer: No, not really (essentially). The quote is silly because scientists ask scientific questions and theologians ask theological questions. We work in complementary ways.


There’s another reason: biologists see a much more ambiguous picture of the world. Biologists see wonderful fruitfulness, but they also see the wastefulness and blind eyes and ragged edges of the evolutionary process. “We as believers have to take that absolutely seriously.”


He’s making an interesting point here about how the biologists are going through right now what physicists have already gone through, this idea of a mechanistic universe. Physicists have emerged on the other side of that process, and he thinks that will happen to biologists as well.


Question: Why is it that so few scientists are believers given all the discoveries about our surprising and open universe?

Answer: I don’t think there’s a general answer to that. “Physics looks at a world that is full of wonderful order.” There’s a “cosmic religiosity to be found among physicists,” even if they’re not traditionally faithful. Einstein felt like a “child in the presence of the elders,” and so on. But he said he saw he saw no evidence for the personal God of theism. “Of course, that’s not surprising, because he wasn’t looking in the right place.”

There’s far less openness to religious belief among biologists. One of the reasons is this terrible bickering over evolution. (He said some fairly unkind thing about supposed servants of the God of truth here, which I quite catch, unfortunately.)


Question: Do you think philosophy of science is a good resource for those of us working on science and theology?

Answer: Yes, there’s a certain cousinly relationship between all these disciplines. “I think philosophy is a wonderful handmaid. Like all scientists, I’m a bit wary of philosophy. They so often come up to us and say, ‘I’ll tell you what you’re really doing.’”


A note to Americans: British academics prefer to be called “Professor So-and-so” rather than “Dr. So-and-so.” Don’t I have that right?


There’s no universal epistemology either. The appropriate question about a proposition isn’t “isn’t it reasonable?” (quantum physics wasn’t) but “what makes you think that might be the case?” Theology also needs to take this outlook. Need to be willing to be bottom-up thinkers, beginning with our experience. The problem with the top-down approach is that clear and certain ideas so often turn out to be “neither clear nor certain.” Dual nature of Christ is, of course, a more perplexing claim than the dual nature of light. But the continuing worshiping experience of the church continues to offer answers to the question “what makes you think that might be the case?” And so, for this and other reasons, we still need theology in the modern university. Full stop. (I’ve missed a few things in here, of course.)


Realism commends itself because of the “stubborn recalcitrance” of nature. It just does not want to conform to our evolving understandings of it. There’s no universal rationality.


As in physics, successful theories in metaphysics also needs to offer us a certain explanatory power. “Atheists are by no means stupid, and many are genuine truth seekers.” But, in P.’s view, the theistic view is more properly explanatory.


Two metaphysical traditions from the West: (1) naturalism — takes existence of nature as their basis, and (2) theism — takes existence of a divine creator as basis. Nature seems to point beyond itself. Wonder is a pointer toward that second view, P. says. These are not knock-down arguments, he notes.


“Intuitive powers of perception” made Einstein’s discoveries possible. Desirable metaphysical properties motivated him, notice.


“Exercise of judgment” is too important to science to overlook. “We know more than we can tell,” Polanyi says. There’s a sense in which science is an art.


I don’t know MacIntosh, but what P.’s saying about him sounds a lot like Thomas Kuhn to me.


“Natural history ends and science begins precisely when we interrogate the world from a particular point of view.” Our theoretical science has to be open to correction. The process is a subtle mechanism, subtler than Popper would have us believe (P. sides with MacIntosh’s idea of a research program).


Both religion and science, Polkinghorne says, are shooting for “reliable insight” not “indubitable proof.” The term “proof” is used way too often. Even in mathematics, Goedel showed, we can’t expect systems to internally derive themselves (I’m not getting that phrasing quite right). So even mathematicians have to take a certain leap of faith.


[Lost track of how we got here...] Whitehead’s “fellow-sufferer” observation meets the problem of suffering head on, though of course it doesn’t solve it.


Notice: Theorizing in theology is bound to be less successful than theorizing in science, because of the nature of what we’re talking about. And so we see Chalcedon, etc., merely draw off some boundaries about what we can say and what we can’t say and still be working within the same theory-space (my term).


Now let’s use Christology as an example of the pursuit of truth in the religious realm. The “phenomenology of early Christian belief” has to be assessed with appropriate scrupulosity (he does this in Faith of a Physicist). But after we do that, we can observe that what’s going on in that phenomenology is the construction of models. These monotheistic Jews played with models for what would describe their experience of Jesus.


So we’ve got two models: Bohr and Bohm. Polkinghorne says the choice between them has to be made for metaphysical reasons, since they’re empirically identical. While constrained by physics, the question between determinacy and indeterminacy is a metaphysical question.


Quantum physics has a probabilistic character, of course. We don’t know when a nucleus will decay. There are two possibilities: (1) there are all kinds of factors we can’t understand that are contributing to the time of decay, and (2) actual ontological indeterminacy. The early quantum physicists followed Bohr in adopting the latter. But Bohm in the ’50s made a more deterministic move that nevertheless makes the same predictions as the Bohr model.


Key point: It took a long time to get some theoretical machinery in place. His process is (1) phenomenology, (2) theory, (3) models. (I think I got these right.) Now to the point about realism: We’ve got to be quite convinced of the reality of these theories when, say, Dirac combines quantum mechanics and relativity and then makes “unforced” predictions about the physical world that turn out to be true.


He’s talking about the history of theorizing about the quantum lines of hydrogen, etc. I’m trying to take pictures.


Let’s return to the theme of “motivated beliefs.” “Indispensable role of theoretical interpretation” can’t look purely Baconian. “Truly insightful understanding is a much more complex activity, and exercise in creative imagination to see truly illuminating underlying patterns.” Einstein: physical meaning (?) has to be created. Einstein was pointing to the need for open, intuitive insight in describing reality. He didn’t brood on the failure of Michaelson Moorely (sp?), he thought about what it would be like to ride on a wave of light.


This project will leave us with a wide circle, and universities should embrace “this whole spectrum.” Universities are “loose affiliations” of researchers on narrow bands of this spectrum. Universities without theology departments are missing out on this perspective on truth-seeking.


Both are engaged by the great human quest for truth “attained through motivated belief.” (Helpful phrase, no?) “So theological questions receive theological answers given for theological reasons.” We can separate these as “how?” and “why?” questions. But their answers “must be consistent with each other.”


“Science has achieved its great success by the modesty of its ambition.” It concentrates on process not on value and purpose. But we know these latter things are “both meaningful and necessary.” Scientist: “the kettle is boiling.” A different kind of answer: “The kettle is boiling because I’m making tea. Would you like some?”


Encounter with “sacred reality” is what is meant by revelation. “Bible is not divinely dictated textbook set forth in propositional terms.” Bible is “more like a laboratory notebook in which are recorded” spiritual experiences.


Theology is concerned with “interpersonal encounter” and “transpersonal encounter with the sacred reality of God.” Here “testing” has to yield to “trusting.”


We meet reality at different levels with different kinds of experience in both science and religion. We reach “high degree of intersubjective agreement” in science because the way we approach the world is based in experiments.


Hehe, “My [scientist] friends do not want to commit intellectual suicide. Of course, neither do I.”


“Enormous explanatory success of science” says that the interpretive circle involved in science is virtuous rather than vicious. Scientists who reflect on their methodology generally say that their perspective is that of “critical realism.” Einstein feared that the Uncertainty Principle created a bit of a monster of the world. He made the mistake, Polkinhorne says, of confusing reality with our experience of it [I think this is his gist. I'm still getting the hang of the live blogging workflow...].




Conference organizer is giving an overview of the conference, it’s theme (“The Path of Discovery: Science, Theology, and the Academy”), and its special guests.

Provost of Pepperdine University is now welcoming us as well. He’s quoting a Wesley hymn about the pairing of knowledge and “vital piety.”

Learning from third introducer that Polkinghorne studied under Dirac. It’s also apparently inappropriate to call him “Sir John Polkinghorne” because he’s also ordained.

Polkinghorne: People say science is about facts and religion about opinions. The latter is about personal preference, they say. There are two bad mistakes in this judgment, he says. The first is a mistaken idea about scientific discovery. No interesting facts are not already interpreted.